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September 11, 2016

Last Christmas, I received a quart jar of local honey from a friend who is a beekeeper. The sweet elixir came with a block of honeycomb. My friend expressed a concern. “I’m worried about my bees,” he said. “Something is killing them.” His concern reflects a nationwide problem. Honeybees are disappearing.

These last days of summer are alive with activity in the insect world. I personally have seen more butterflies and bumblebees than I have seen honeybees. My beekeeper friend made an unusual request. “If you hear of anybody who has a problem with a swarm of bees invading their home, please call me. I need to replenish my hives.”

Over the last ten years some commercial beekeepers in the United States have lost 90% of their colonies. Dr. Mike Hood, Professor of Entomology at Clemson University, has been following the epidemic known as colony collapse since 2007. Honeybees have been in decline since 1950. At first this was attributed to an increase in the use of pesticides. Now, bees are disappearing at an alarming rate, and scientists don’t know why. Agricultural production across the United States depends on these tiny workers. Crops from almonds to apples to avocados depend on the insect.

Ben Guarino of the Washington Post wrote an article reprinted in the Sunday, September 4, 2016, edition of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. On the previous Sunday morning in the Lowcountry of South Carolina honeybees began to die in massive numbers. Dead worker bees scattered across the farms of Dorchester County suggested that colony collapse was not the culprit this time. Workers died leaving a queen and young bees behind. One Summerville, South Carolina, woman wrote on Facebook that walking across her farm was like visiting a cemetery.

At the Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply in Summerville forty-six hives were decimated totaling an estimated loss of well over two million bees. The cause of all of this carnage was evident. In an effort to control mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus and the Zika virus, the pesticide Naled was sprayed by Dorchester County employees. The bees had been poisoned.

Albert Einstein said, “If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years.” Though agriculturists aren’t predicting such dire consequences, most agree that the impact has already been significant. Last week in Dorchester County the results were devastating.

Some have said that honeybees are a canary for the human race. In times past, a canary was sent into the coal mines to see whether there was oxygen enough for the miners to do their work. If the canary died, it was time for the miners to get out.

When people think of bees they think of honey. My grandmother who suffered with asthma believed that a spoonful of local honey, taken every day, helped control her allergies. A jar of honey from the Upstate was the best gift we could give to her.

The real value of bees is not the production of honey. The honeybee, our most beneficial insect, is a pollinator.  In South Carolina crops like peaches, watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, apples, and cucumbers are all heavily dependent on bees for pollination.

South Carolina has a master beekeeper program offered to the public through Clemson University and hosted by the South Carolina Beekeeper’s Association.  Dr. Hood says, “We will take someone who has never been around honeybees, and we can make a hobby beekeeper out of them within about eight weeks.”

Clare and I have good friends who live in Gaffney, South Carolina. He retired from his work about the same time that I retired. We were with them at a dinner last year. In our conversation we exchanged notes on our retirement. I told him that Clare says I have failed retirement.

He laughed and then told me about the new hobby he and his wife shared, beekeeping. This couple has a nice home on spacious land. My friend has planted several acres in white and red clover, specifically for the purpose of attracting honeybees.

I asked if his hives had been victim of colony collapse. He explained that his bees had suffered a different but no less severe plight.

“My wife and I went out to gather honey one day last week. We both had on our protective garb. I was working one hive while she worked another. All of a sudden she was covered up with a swarm of aggressive bees. Some of the killer bees that have made their way into our country had crossbred with one of our hives. I had to destroy the whole colony. “

Anyone who has gone barefooted in a patch of clover has, sooner or later, stepped on a honeybee. Bee stings are to be avoided, but the fact remains, bees are essential insects. Colony collapse, insecticides such as Nadal, and interbreeding with killer bees are all hazardous to the health of our bee population. Other factors such as drought or hurricanes can affect the fragile habitat of bees.

Is there anything people can do at home in their yards to help encourage bee recovery?  Through urban sprawl we have eliminated much of the honeybees’ natural foraging area.  Improving the availability of food for bees by planting flowering trees or a wild flower garden will help. The same flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, i.e., zinnias, salvias, and, of course, bee balm, also attract honeybees. These flowers and others like them offer a double benefit.

Any time we plan to purchase a pesticide, we must read the directions. If it is harmful to honeybees, we should not use it. The safest insecticides are those that are organic and may be used around food crops.

Do like my grandmother did and purchase local honey. Buying honey produced in our area also boosts the honeybee population by encouraging local beekeepers.

When I consider beneficial insects my motto is one I adopted from the South Carolina Department of Transportation. When I enter a construction zone I see the signs clearly posted, “Let them work. Let them live.”

We need the tiny busy workers known as honeybees. Let them work. Let them live. Life just wouldn’t be the same without honeybees.

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